I am writing from a small chicken farm just outside a distant suburb of Austin, Texas, where we have relocated for a few months (for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog or with Dubois).
It’s great to have free eggs from these free-range chickens. But it was a rude surprise to find that here, only an hour from one of the hottest Internet hubs in the nation, the Internet signal in our guest cottage was so weak that I couldn’t use video on a Zoom call.
I don’t merely miss the flawless Internet back home. I miss hiking trails that don’t resemble eroded garden paths for giants with badly hewn stone staircases, where you can never look around because you must always look down. I miss my routine. I miss our community.
Perhaps this is how you feel as a digital nomad, one of those vagabonds who works on the Internet and travels the world with no fixed home. Given the challenges of the pandemic, social media groups about digital nomads are abuzz with the disadvantages of that lifestyle. Sampling vacation spots and writing posts from a beach chair may sound idyllic, but there are realities that begin to pixelate that rosy image.
Even before the pandemic, travel could be a headache. Besides that and the risk of spotty Internet, there’s the inconvenience of packing and unpacking in new places all the time.
Like a perpetual tourist, you never have sufficient time to connect with the local community. Your only community lives on your screen.
In a blog about the future of remote work, one of the original digital nomads, Pieter Levels, talks poignantly about why he gave up the wandering life. He predicts that when the pandemic is behind us, tech workers who are able to live anywhere “will NOT be fast-traveling from place to place, but instead will relocate longer-term to remote work destinations.”
What could this mean for communities like Dubois, which rely heavily on tourism?
Until now, I’ve focused on attracting digital workers who already have a home base elsewhere, and on whether or not Dubois should establish a co-working space for them. But this week I learned of something that reordered my thoughts.
It was an online conversation between Rowena Hennigan, who comes from Ireland but lives in Spain, and Gonçalo Hall, who is in Portugal. Both are remote-work advocates, and I’ve spoken separately with each of them on LinkedIn about our project to promote remote work in Dubois.
In a recent podcast, Rowena interviews Gonçalo about a government-sponsored plan to build a new community for digital nomads on the remote Portuguese island of Madeira, located west of the coast of Morocco. He says that the island is (like Dubois) “practically unexplored by any digital nomads or remote workers.”.
Gonçalo goes on to describe the same kind of loneliness that Pieter Levels portrays so poignantly. “Lisbon has a lot of digital workers just now,” he says, “but it’s not a community, because it’s just too big. I miss being with people. I miss the sense of belonging…. I think other digital nomads and other remote workers miss it too.”
So he intends to build a whole new village for them on Madeira.
The project will be based in the town of Ponta do Sol, which (quite unlike Dubois) has “no life to the village,” except for the tourists who come to see the sun set over the ocean. Afterwards, he said, they go down to the village looking for something, and find nothing.
“It should be full of people living there,” he said. “… We want them to create co-working spaces and co-living spaces. … It’s not just a project, it’s a sustainable future.”
Dubois already has its own case study of a former digital nomad, in the person of travel blogger Di Minardi. Perhaps a few readers will remember her name, because last spring I spent a great deal of effort searching for a place where she could stay.
Di approached me via LinkedIn a year ago, having seen my posts about Dubois. She proposed to come for the summer and to feature the area on her blog Slight North. Because the blog is targeted to remote workers, I jumped at the offer.
Naturally, we kept in close touch after that. Why, I asked, was she interested in Dubois, of all places? (If you don’t know the town yet, check out the link.) Because it sounded interesting, she said–but that wasn’t the whole story.
For reasons related to the pandemic, Di had to cancel the plan, and we agreed to revisit the idea after this crisis is over. She re-contacted me a few weeks ago, but for a different reason: To ask for a recommendation to a program in environmental writing at the University of Wyoming.
During the long, forced pause of the pandemic, Di told me, she began to realize that she needed a real-life community of mentors who could help her advance her skills, in the direction of a career with more impact than just describing places to visit.
Why that particular program? Because of the curriculum and the instructors, but also because of the location. Di told me that she has wanted to visit Wyoming for a long time, and was eager to experience living here.
As a science writer and now a friend, I was pleased to write the letter.
Of course, I’ll invite Di to come to Dubois once the “new normal” sets in. Then I will also ask her what we could do to make Dubois an attractive home base for her, and for other online workers who have tired of the wandering life. How can we fulfill their desires for their own community, not just for ours?
Our basic needs do align: They want something more than just a place to visit, and we want to be that.
© Lois Wingerson, 2020